What a shame. A movie that starts with fireworks fizzles like a firecracker a child would use on the 4th of July. The true story of Brian Brown Easly, a 33-year-old former Lance Corporal for the United States Marine Corps, is a tragic tale with much to tell, yet the filmmakers say so little in the end. What’s labeled in the poster as a “modern-day Dog Day Afternoon” rings true, at least for the solid first half of the film.
The thing that makes a good story work is minimalism. It’s knowing when to draw the line in your cinematic language, so your audience can be absorbed by the narrative. Beginning the film with the subtle action of our protagonist picking up his glasses draws more tension than someone loading a gun. Director Abi Damaris Corbin lets us know through John Boyega’s twitchy actions that there’s something off with Brian Brown Easly. In its opening moments, Brian holds up a local Wells Fargo bank. Approaching the cashier with a note reading, “I have a bomb,” Mr. Easly begins the final day of his freedom.
The tension in the bank heist can be cut with a knife, thanks to the sound mix. Most films would kick start the music with a bang when the heist begins. You’ll often hear a generic tension track building up the heat of the moment like a ticking time bomb; given Mr. Brown’s explosive situation, a ticking clock would be a logical place for a director to choose their track. But Ms. Corbin plays it differently, only raising the volume when someone panics. If someone springs from a chair or screams, the volume plays like a jump scare without feeling cheap or unearned. The portrait Ms. Corbin and screenwriter Kwame Kwei-Armah paint of Brian Brown Easly is compassionate but limited.
Brian Brown Easly isn’t just a movie character. Breaking is based on the story of a former Marine who demanded his disability check from the U.S. government. Having suffered severe PTSD, Mr. Easly could not continue work in the military, let alone function in normal society. Similar to Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, it’s clear that Brian doesn’t truly intend to harm anyone despite his threats of violence. All he wants is to be heard by those who turn a deaf ear to mental illness. Everyone pretends like they care about Brian, but they don’t give him the financial help he needs despite putting his life on the line for his country. Brian seeks support (not compassion) from a nation that deems him a hero. His goal isn’t to rob a bank; it’s to prove a point.
After suffering years of trauma, Brian has difficulty communicating. Working with such mental distress has strained relationships with his family. John’s wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington) has two children to care for. Her daughter and her husband. When suffering from severe mental illness, John cannot operate as an adult in many situations causing him to act out of emotion, although he’s harmless. Often his daughter Kiah (London Covington) has to remind her father to breathe. Kiah is about seven or eight and has to calm her adult father down.
Throughout the heist, John continually apologizes for his behavior. At one point, he asks one of the hostages who’s sobbing and shaking if she’s okay. Clearly, the man can’t pick up on mental cues, leading me to believe that perhaps there’s more than PTSD that’s gone undiagnosed for Mr. Easly.
When it’s revealed that Brian’s a vet, I expected the movie to turn into a wartime flashback fest. Seeing Brian in his fatigues within a desert, I thought, “oh boy, here comes Brothers.” Brothers is a 2009 film where Tobey McGuire returns to his wife, played by Nataly Portman, after serving his tour. When Tobey gets home, he has a total psychotic breakdown that YouTube has immortalized. I’m relieved that the filmmakers didn’t go that route, only giving us a single flash of Brian’s wartorn backstory. Right when we get to know more about Brian, the film derails into a dull hostage negotiator subplot.
Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams) is the boring part of a thrilling movie. If you’ve seen Falling, you might remember every bit of Michael Douglas’ spiral being a rush to watch. Then the film cuts to the cop played by Robert Duvall. He’s the guy who’s about to retire, has a heart of gold, and wasn’t expecting to have his last day on the job to be so day be so dramatic. That’s all there is to Eli’s character minus the retirement part. Eli’s screentime could have been trimmed down or give his character more to do than argue with his squadmates.
When switching between Brian demanding news crews to document his exchange to Eli attempting to assess the situation, Breaking becomes another copycat standoff flick. Rather than focussing on why Eli ticks rather than a simple (PTSD) label, the movie opts for easy shortcuts. That isn’t very reassuring given the talent brought to screen by John Boyega. Boyega can jump from subtle to calm instantly, triggering recognizable factors of bipolar mania. I’d like to have seen the movie focus exclusively on Brian’s perspective since the cop subplot breaks the tension from Breaking.
Before the film can reach a grand conclusion to its statement, the story ends abruptly with more questions left about Brian than answers when the film’s point should be to understand who Brian Brown Easly was. Not just feel sorry for him. Instead of switching to the ball-busting cop, Brian’s backstory could be explained via dialogue in the bank. The man has the media on the phone midway through the film. He can tell the reporter he’s talking to on the phone his backstory. Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) could have easily replaced Eli’s character as a negotiator. Since the idea of a reporter is to get to the bottom of a person, Lisa could have worked as an alternative to Eli.
Since Breaking is based on a true story having Brian tell the media his entire backstory would be inaccurate. But who cares? Dramatic licenses exist so the audience can better understand a real person through fiction. Maybe the screenwriter could have asked Oliver Stone for some pointers. There are many structural options the movie wisely takes in its first act but quickly falls to trite narrative devices when reaching the end of its brief 103-minute runtime.